WASHINGTON — Money has played a major role in the current drama to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, with millions of dollars spent in the past year trying to influence or kill various proposals that could affect a variety of special interests.
As senators begin debate on the so-called Gang of Eight’s proposal, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people here illegally, hundreds of lobbyists representing tech companies, agriculture interests and students, along with families living here illegally, have flanked Capital Hill to ensure members of Congress address their needs.
Many were in the room Thursday when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., banged the gavel to begin debate on more than 300 amendments intended to modify or kill the bipartisan proposal.
The lobbyists’ interests have been varied. They include broadening the allocation of temporary agriculture visas to include sheepherders, making it easier for U.S. companies to hire highly skilled foreign tech workers, and permitting citizens to sponsor their same-sex spouses for legal residency and granting special visa exemptions for performing artists.
In all, nearly 680 lobbying organizations from 170 sectors have worked to influence policy on immigration issues from 2008 to 2012, according to The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that promotes government transparency. The last major attempt at changing immigration law came in 2007 and failed.
This time around, the stakes are especially high for high-tech companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook, which spent more than $2 million each this year on federal lobbying efforts that included immigration, lobbying reports show.
Even as the nation’s unemployment rate hovers at 7.5 percent amid tepid economic growth, many employers say they are desperately searching for high-tech workers and must look to foreigners to fill their needs.
The bipartisan Senate proposal by the Gang of Eight – Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona – includes a provision that makes it easier for foreign high-tech and science graduates to attain green cards and increases the number of guest workers who can be hired.
Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, pleaded with senators at a recent hearing that the tech giant desperately needs more foreign workers to sustain U.S. operations. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has more than 6,300 open positions. Smith noted that while the national unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, the unemployment rate for computer and mathematical jobs is 3.2 percent. In Washington state, the unemployment rate for computer science-related jobs is 1 percent.
“We are increasingly grappling with a significant economic challenge,” he said. “We are not able to fill all the jobs that we are creating.”
Microsoft spent $8 million dollars lobbying on immigration and other issues in 2012 and filed 33 reports that included immigration among the company’s political concerns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit watchdog organization.
It’s always hard to establish the significance of lobbying money, but former Congressional Budget Office director Doug Holtz-Eakin, who leads the conservative think tank American Action Forum, told McClatchy that the money being spent reflects that business leaders see a real potential of a possible solution.
“These are businessmen,” he said. “They don’t throw money at something that’s not going to get done because it’s a neat idea.”
The lobbying reports illustrate how these companies are seeking to influence policy on many issues. The companies do not have to report how much they spend on particular issues, such as immigration, or where they stand, but reports give an idea on who’s interested in the proposed legislative overhaul.
High-tech workers, for example, are in high demand across industry sectors. More companies have technology arms, from auto manufacturers that use software to detect car problems to heath care companies that use software to manage medical data.
Construction manufacturing giant Caterpillar spent more than $2.5 million in federal lobbying this year on cybersecurity, pension reform and immigration, among other issues.
Mark Peters, corporate counsel for Caterpillar, said in an interview that his company has the same need for high-tech workers as the Facebooks and Googles of the world. Their needs may be even greater, he said, as the concentration of technology workers in the Midwest is not as high as it is around Silicon Valley or in Washington state. Caterpillar is based in Peoria, Ill.
“We have 10,000 engineers, technologists and scientist throughout the world. Our equipment is far more sophisticated than people appreciate. And we just don’t have enough of these high-tech engineers to build this sophisticated equipment,” Peters said.
But as the extent of lobbying efforts show, it’s far from exclusively a high-tech issue.
Agribusiness has been fighting for ways to hire more foreign workers for years, and service industries such as tourism and casinos also want to bring in more foreign workers.
Marriott International, the American Hotel & Lodging Association and American Gaming Association spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in Washington.
The list of agriculture companies and associations that have their lobbyists staking out Capitol Hill include the California Dried Plum Board, the North American Blueberry Council and the Valley Fig Growers hotel.
The National Council of Farmer Cooperatives spent more than $320,000 on federal lobbying this year.
President Charles Conner told senators last month that finding enough workers to pick crops has become the No. 1 concern for many farmers across the country. He cited a California Farm Bureau study when he told senators last month that 71 percent of the tree fruit growers, and nearly 80 percent of raisin and berry growers, were unable to find enough workers to prune trees and vines or pick crops.
“I daresay,” Connor said, “that for many producers this immigration legislation, and this debate before us, is more important to the survival of their operations than any other legislation pending before Congress.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @francoordonez